Thinking about my own future has led me to think more about charity from a utilitarian perspective. I’ve realized three interesting consequences of trying to be utilitarian in charity.

First, I should clarify that when I say “utilitarian charity” I mean that pro-social utilitarians include the (weighted) utility/preferences of others into their own utility function, and if donation options are sufficiently attractive, utilitarians will donate to the highest expected utility charity. Such charity is “utilitarian charity” in that it comes from utilitarian motivations.

Three consequences of a utilitarian perspective on charity:

  1. You should donate money, not time
    • The wage you earn for charity at your normal job is significantly higher than the wage you earn for charity when doing menial tasks for the charity
  2. You should donate to only one charity
    • If you’re donating to the charity with the highest expected utility gain, donating to a different charity, means you could have done better than you did. There is no hedging with charity because the money you donate will never change the donation options, behind every dehydrated child is another equally deserving dehydrated child.
  3. Other things equal, if you currently donate money to charity, ALL increases in your income should go to charity
    • This follows from the declining marginal utility of income and the vastness of the world’s problems. The marginal utility of extra income drops as you consume the things which are most attractive to you in order of declining marginal utility; however, the marginal utility of donation is constant since you cannot personally make a significant difference in the world’s problems, which means that it will always be the highest marginal utility spending margin. This does not hold when you have a large change in opportunities, preferences or the prices you face. For example, if your dear uncle contracts cancer or you start to feel the strong urge to have children, this does not hold.

Realizing #3 surprised me, and made me realize that the answer to the question “how much should I donate when I am older” is “quite a lot”. When the cost to save a life is $250-$750, you don’t need to weight other’s preferences very highly at all in order to make charity extremely lucrative.